Half-Hearted: The C-Word Nobody’s Talking About
The Debrief: Sex secrets of the ‘pull out generation’
Modern life is full of fake news. Your phone buzzes upteempth times a day to alert you, that dun dun dun...something else has happened and OMFG it requires you to read this tweet, watch this video or share this article. In amongst the botched celebrity boob jobs, Theresa May’s death knell and Lana Del Rey album reviews, there’s occasionally something worth reading. When the following push notification from The Guardian popped up, my head was turned: 'Government cuts are brewing a sexual health crisis.'
I’d like to think of myself as unsusceptible to clickbait headlines (I mean, I’ve made a living off writing them) but something about the words 'sexual health crisis' had me at hello. As a sexually active, single person, an ardent feminist with the privilege of education behind me, I do not pay my body the respect it deserves and I couldn’t tell you for why.
The sexual health crisis has quietly been bubbling under for several years as a result of terrifying cuts to the NHS and subsequently overwhelmed GPs. In 2015, the government announced its £200m public health budget cut, which meant an estimated £40m cut from local council's budgets towards sexual health testing, clinics and treatments, despite the experts warning such cuts would lead to a sexual health endemic.
In the same year, The Independent reported that young people were using less condoms than ever, despite a gradual increase in the amount of people testing positive for STIs. The piece reported that 15% of sexually active under-25s admitted to having unprotected sex with two or more partners in 2014. Let’s take into consideration the white lies that undoubtedly took place in that survey and assume that figure is a desperately poor reflection of how much unprotected sex that age group were actually having. According to the NHS, there were 439,243 cases of STIs in logged in the UK (consider how many people are foregoing testing, too) and, add to that figure, 6,000 new cases of HIV in the UK amongst men, in 2014. Some media outlets are reporting that dating apps like Tinder have been catalysts for the increase of STIs. Even over 60’s have seen a rise in STI contractions and there’s research to prove the existence of a new sexually transmitted infection, named MG. Yay!
Last Summer, The Telegraph also reported soaring rates of gonorrhoea and syphilis, despite these diseases being household names and their prevalence well documented. The figures showed a 76% rise in both gonorrhoea and syphilis since 2012. The statistics are alarming. And yet here we are, now, in 2017, and still going condom-free. So what’s going on?
Ok, I’m largely bombarding you with statistics to brush away any cobwebs you might have around the idea that, now we’re 'post-aids crisis' and have wonderful inventions like the coil and the implant (that don’t protect against venereal diseases FYI) we’re all skipping hand in hand through the Garden of Eden, fig leaf in place, having sex as nature intended and getting away scot free. Because…we’re not.
I’m not going to lie; I’ve been as negligent as the next person when it’s come to using prophylactics. They’re not exactly famed for their aphrodisiacal tendencies. I’d rather light a candle, thanks. If I’m being really honest, I don’t think I’ve assisted with the fitting of a condom since circa 2000. I do, insist on them, occasionally and I know that sentence should read: 'every single time I have sex.' The opening hours of clinics are always restrictive, the queues prohibitive and the fear of seeing you someone you know ever present, but it’s still not enough to stop us from rolling the dice, pissing into cups and spending half a day in a waiting room in Whitechapel. And, we can’t exactly cry wolf. The facts are everywhere.
Despite the threat of disease being very real and everybody knowing that good sexual health clinics are far and few between, we’re not exactly fighting for healthier coitus, are we? And, I imagine I’m not alone when I say I’m increasingly finding myself having fewer and fewer conversations about condoms too. I never inadvertently scoop one up with a hair tie as I riffle around my bag- because there are none in there. I can recall a time, at college, when they used to be badges of experience and adventure. We’d all ensure we had one, in the place of a loved one’s passport photo, ostentatiously lining our giant Michael Kors wallets. At university, a sure sign of having had a good time, used to be a bedroom floor covered in condom wrappers. I can’t remember the last time I saw one in my own, or any of my friend’s bathrooms or bins. Like Pompeian relics, we’re letting them collect dust in the back of abandoned drawers along with single socks and kirby grips- but why? When they’re as essential to our health as our toothbrushes are?
I think this is happening for several, complicated reasons.
Amongst my friends, we discuss the pros and cons of female contraceptives (the virtues of the implant over the coil) but we never, ever, talk about condoms. The most I hear about the c-word is a wry, morning-after, 'did you use one!' text from a semi-concerned housemate, but we do not actually deride one another, as I think we should, about the lack of condoms in our sex lives.
For most girls the narrative around condoms is twisted. We all remember the chalky-handed nurse clumsily thumbing a rubber over a banana at school and the first shame-filled time we asked a boy to wear one. Even now, as my friends, in their mid-twenties still think men don’t do enough to make it their responsibility to wear one. On Facebook chat, two of my single friends, Andie and Charley agree. 'They [men] literally don't give a shit, the implications for them are too speculative, and they're one-headed so in the moment they're just thinking about how it feels' types Charley. 'I reckon some also think they won't be able to get it up if they use a condom and they're just so adamant and stubborn' she adds. Andie thinks a lot of us are at it when we’re pissed too and that plays a part. 'Alcohol and drugs makes you lazy' says Andie 'as does a lack of education about consent. Boys have that ‘you can get just the pill tomorrow’ attitude, rather than being like ‘no, I want to sleep with someone who is comfortable with every aspect of this experience"'.
At some point during adolescence I would bet my last quid that the majority of girls have been made to feel 'naggy' (eugh!) or 'boorish' about the insistence of a condom. Moronic, but we’ve all been there. I remember the very distinct sting, deep in my chest, at being mocked for making my first boyfriend always use a condom during sex. One of my more experienced friends, chided me: 'He won’t be able to feel a thing.'
As I grew older, and my own pleasure became just as, if not more, important than my sexual partners, I realised something: women don’t feel as much with a condom on either, and myself and my friends think of orgasms as a right and not a privilege. I think we must address the issues men face too. I think it’s not unusual for a girl to feel suspicious of a man who vehemently advocates the use of condoms. Is he a massive player? Does he not trust women? …
Which leads us all, nicely, on to the little sex secret most Millennials live with. Ah, the pull-out method...
American writer, Anne Freidman even coined the moniker 'pullout' generation to describe Gen Y. An indictment, but also a truth. All of my friends admit to using this highly risky form of 'contraception' at least once, and I know people for whom this is their only form of prophylactic. The mindset is, 'it’s just a course of antibiotics to solve something like chlamydia so, I’ll take the risk.' Or, 'I’m in a long-term relationship and we’ve both been checked, so why not?'
That might sound beyond reckless but, for many women, who find synthetic hormone treatments (from the pill to the coil) damaging to their mental health, it’s a risk worth taking. I consider myself to be rational, and the majority of my friends risk adverse, but I know more than a handful of people who’ve fallen pregnant in long term relationships while using the withdrawal method– and they carried on using it.
It seems that many of us are willingly putting our health on the line, despite the increasing lack of access to sexual health clinics and rises in reported STIs. Mobile technology, the online porn boom, also mean lots of us are having sex via our iPhones, and, subsequently, expecting unprotected sex, IRL, as standard. As community centres close their doors and GP’s waiting rooms become busier, we’re being left to fend for ourselves.
We also find ourselves living in a time where (for good reason) the contraceptive pill is being criticised, condoms are ignored, and, sexual health is being overlooked by those in government.
I think, we must do away with the stigma attached to condoms and embrace them. We also have more frank conversations about safe sex with our peers and as women, push each other to insist more readily on their use. We also need to fight for our sexual health centres and, perhaps most importantly of all, for innovation when it comes to contraception. We can send spaceships to Mars so it’s reasonable to expect new methods of contraception which maximise pleasure without damaging our mental health.
Quite frankly, there’s enough to be worrying about (Trump, Brexit, glass ceilings and um, nuclear war) to be fretting about guilt-ridden sex. It’s supposed to be fun, right?
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